In the more than four decades since Neal Henderson launched the first nonwhite youth hockey organization in North America, he has helped several hundred young people flourish on the ice locally and in tournaments across the continent, even as his racially diverse club faced what he described as covert and overt acts of discrimination.
Henderson, a lifelong hockey player, attested the longevity of what many have come to know as the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club to its reverence for D.C. history and a system that compels players to put their best foot forward and rise through the ranks of the program.
“The players have to work to get their full gear and make it on the house team,” Henderson said. “Then they work to make the travel team. Then they have to work hard to stay on the travel team.
“The first level is sticks and gloves,” he continued. “After they perform all the positions and duties [that come with working] with sticks and gloves, they graduate to the next level where they perform all the commands with the stick, and controlling the puck. They get motivated by watching how the other skaters perform. That makes them work as hard to get to the next level.”
Monday’s practice followed what had been an eventful week for Coach Henderson. On Thursday, Dec. 12, the veteran coach entered the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame during a ceremony at the Marriott Marquis in Northwest. Two days prior, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) proclaimed Dec. 10 as “Coach Neal Henderson Day.” That evening, a teary-eyed Henderson accepted honors at the Wilson Building before an audience of hockey club players, coaches, and city officials.
In his remarks, he placed his love for youth inspires the magic that unfolds at the Fort Dupont Ice Arena two days out of the week and five months out of the year.
The Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, founded in 1978, counts among more than 30 U.S. and Canada-based affiliates of the National Hockey League (NHL)’s Hockey is for Everyone program. The more than 40 young people affiliated with the Fort Dupont Cannons wear their club’s black, yellow, and white colors, a combination that pays homage to African-American soldiers who successfully protected the southeastern corner of the U.S. Capitol during the Civil War.
On Monday, Henderson likened the two hockey sticks and puck etched on the seal of the Fort Dupont Hockey Club that to the cannon and ball Black union soldiers used on those grounds during the Civil War. He said he demands his players exhibit a similar level of focus and demeanor on the ice.
Since its inception, the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club has made waves competitively, placing first in the National Capital Hockey Tournament, also known as the Purple Puck, throughout the late 1990s and 2000s. They have also been featured on the cover of a well-regarded hockey magazine.
Along the way, Coach Henderson taught his youth about hockey’s origins as a recreational activity for African Americans who escaped slavery and settled in Canada in the early 19th century. Fifteen years ago, he and other coaches doled out copies of “Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925” to their youth.
More than a decade later, with the Washington Capitals bringing the Stanley Cup to the District, Henderson contends that time is of the essence in the city leaders expanding upon what Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club has contributed.
“There has been talk of building a new rink or rehabilitating this one. I can only hope that young people can continue to enjoy the happiness of skating and sports activities on the ice,” he said.
In February, Mayor Bowser and the Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena reached an agreement to renovate the historic facility, a project that’s been in discussion since at least 2014. This deal leaves Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena with a $3 million price tag, all of which must be raised by February. Earlier this year, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and the NHL contributed to the Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena’s $500,000 GoFundMe campaign.
The Fort Dupont Ice Arena, the District’s sole indoor ice skating rink, hosts more than 3,000 young people annually, including Gonzaga College High School and Catholic University’s hockey teams. The facility has become a second home of sorts for many of Coach Henderson’s pupils, including Darius Nichols, a six-year member of the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club.
Darius, an avid football player who embraced hockey after winning a private lesson in a school raffle, joined the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club at the suggestion of someone who frequented his former hockey club.
He said that he has come to know Coach Henderson as a patient teacher whose wisdom reaches well beyond the game of hockey.
“Coach takes the time to teach us techniques, like crossovers, and shooting and passing the puck,” said Darius, 12. “He taught me that I can do whatever I set my mind on. He makes sure that when we’re on the ice, we work together on drills so that we’d be tight in game situations. We have to work with one another so we can like each other better.”